Where are the songs of lament in worship?
Can we embrace a tradition which says grief is not something to hide from God or to be ashamed of or to bury with superficial hope and confidence?
By Hillary Kimsey
Lee and I grew up in church together. We were usually co-champions in Sunday school Bible trivia. We loved Lord of the Rings. We went on a couple dates.
The night before the first final exam of my college career, Lee was diagnosed with leukemia. He was 18. After years of chemo, two relapses and a failed bone marrow transplant, he died at 24.
When Lee died, I refused to sing Chris Tomlin’s How Great is our God at the funeral. The last thing I wanted to sing while I was weeping and cursing God was:
How great is our God.
Age to age he stands
and time is in his hands.
Beginning and the end.
If God was so great then my beloved friend, my brother, would not be dead. If time was in God’s hands, then God decided Lee’s time was up. Never have I been more angry at God than in that moment. Never before had I longed to sing a song of accusation or doubt or despair. Yet, church told me to sing about the unlimited power and impersonal might of God.
I refused. I glared straight ahead, clenched my jaw and let the tears fall while the others sang. I feared that if I opened my mouth, I would scream or vomit or curse or weep louder.
This song was painful for me, but it also is part of a larger problem in the church — we have forgotten how to lament.
Lee’s funeral, though the most tragic I’ve attended, was not so different from many Christian funeral services. Efforts to comfort grieving people focus on putting them face-to-face with a God who has disappointed them, a God who feels absent and uncaring. We ask grieving people to sing about God’s power and love, but have few songs about despair or doubt. We preach to them about heaven and God’s control, but we don’t tell them it’s OK to be angry or sad, or that it’s natural to ask difficult questions.
The preacher at Lee’s funeral talked about hope, and I did not feel it. Instead, I felt weak. I thought: If my faith was strong, I wouldn’t wonder whether God was in control or whether God loved me. If my faith was strong, I’d be able to sing this song and believe it.
No one told me that my feelings were natural and healthy and not a sign of weak faith. They should have done. Instead of teaching Christians to bury their grief and project a hope and confidence they may not feel again for months, the church should sing songs and preach sermons that express lament.
Instead of funerals mimicking weekly church services, they should be set apart with their own traditions. Death should not be business as usual in the church. In the Old Testament, the grieving tore their clothes, and wore sackcloth and ashes. The psalmist penned pages of lament to God, saying in Psalm 31:9-10, “Have mercy on me, LORD, for I am in distress. My sight is blurred because of my tears. My body and soul are withering away. I am dying from grief; my years are shortened by sadness. Misery has drained my strength; I am wasting away from within.”
In the 17th and 18th centuries, grieving families permanently dyed their clothing black. In some Native American and Asian traditions, women cut off their hair as a sign of grief. Grief was not hidden, but outwardly worn, clearly visible. In our postmodern age, we might do well to embrace an ancient tradition or create a new one that says grief is natural and not something to hide from God or be ashamed of or bury with superficial hope and confidence.
When Jesus learned of Lazarus’s death, he wept. When Jesus was on the cross, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If was OK for Jesus to weep and question God, it’s OK for us too.
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